Long Reach coach Nikkia Johnson knows the obstacles teams deal with during the course of a cheerleading season. There are injuries and scheduling conflicts. Sometimes, cheerleaders decide they no longer want to compete.
But for the most part, none of those roadblocks popped up for the Lightning this fall. They dealt with one injury, but it occurred in October, giving them time to tweak their routine.
So, leading up to the county championships, Johnson was skeptical that their good fortune would continue. She feared someone would suffer an injury in warmups or the night before a big competition. When her girls who cheer on other teams left for practices, she urged them to be smart and safe.
"Please don't get hurt," Johnson said, "because we need you."
Everything ran smoothly at the county competition, however. Long Reach nailed its routine — Johnson said she started crying when they hit a part of a pyramid — and earned a score of 122.5, which was enough to hold off second-place Marriotts Ridge (121). The Lightning always thought they had a chance at winning, and Thursday night, that expectation became a reality on their home turf.
"We're used to seeing these amazing teams with these 120-something scores," senior captain Sarah Jungblut said. "And then when they called our name with that score, it just meant everything."
The victory marks Long Reach's first county title since 2015 and first fall championship since 2012. With the win, the Lightning also automatically qualified for the 3A/4A state semifinals at Harford Community College on Nov. 4.
"We've been on varsity since our sophomore years, so we've seen amazing teams fall season," fellow senior captain Jordyn Tyler said. "And just to know that we're one of those amazing teams now is really great."
Jungblut and Tyler touched on the advantages of competing at their own school. The Lightning are used to their gym and their mats. Plus, performing in front of their friends, family members, fellow students, and much of the football team served as extra motivation.
After her team's routine, Johnson had a feeling it was good enough to clinch the victory. Other coaches seemed to think so as well.
"They actually went right before us, so we didn't see them," Marriotts Ridge coach Sugene Shin said. "We were warming up when they were performing, but I asked all of the other coaches and they were like 'they were amazing.'"
Still, Johnson understood cheerleading's subjectivity. Judges view routines differently, and the various scores reflect that. Long Reach also faced stiff competition, as Glenelg (116.85), Mt. Hebron (111.8) and Atholton (111.65) all put together quality routines.
Entering Thursday's event, Jungblut said the team's motto was to stay humble. The Lightning couldn't worry about how their competitors performed. After earning a high score at their competition last week, they remained calm and focused on perfecting that routine on the county stage.
"Throughout the school day, we were just telling each other we love each other and to get through the day and be positive," Tyler said.
In trying to talk her team out of being disappointed if they had lost, Johnson pointed out that it'd likely advance to the state semifinals anyway. That alone was a significant accomplishment for Long Reach, which hasn't done so since Johnson became the coach in 2013.
But as Jungblut phrased it, the Lightning "hit everything," and they did so in front of a raucous crowd. While they competed, she felt the gym shaking.
It erupted again upon the announcer naming a county winner. After years of competing, Jungblut and her teammates were champions.
"It just kind of proves to ourselves," Jungblut said. "Someone can tell you a million times that you're good, but until you're actually there and you feel it, you're not going to really feel that you are."
1. Long Reach 122.5; 2. Marriotts Ridge 121; 3. Glenelg 116.85; 4. Mt. Hebron 111.8; 5. Atholton 111.65; 6. River Hill 110.85.
7. Howard 108.65; 8. Wilde Lake 105.9; 9. Reservoir 93.65; 10. Oakland Mills 93.5; 11. Hammond 87.2; 12. Centennial 85.8.